“I’ve been nerding out on this and tripping out – it’s made me want to just build products!”
Alma Har’el is more animated than someone who has spent the past few days giving back-to-back presentations and interviews has any right to be. She’s in Cannes to launch the new evolution of her ongoing mission to diversify behind-the-camera talent. Where Free the Bid is an initiative to increase the advertising work going to female directors, Free the Work is a bigger, broader beast and it has given Alma a taste for tech.
“I’m definitely seeing tech as a creative field,” she enthuses. For over four months she’s been working with her Free the Bid team and an almost all-female team of developers and designers at a company called Heatwave to build a smart, machine-learning-powered platform that will make it easier than ever to find underrepresented talent – writers, directors, cinematographers and more.
As a lauded features and commercials director, creative experimentation is nothing new for Alma – but putting her incandescent genius to work using technology to solve a huge problem has been an experience like no other. “The learning curve on this was thrilling. If you can imagine sitting learning how to build a product and how to market it but also understanding how tech can support your mission… it was one of the best rides of my life.”
FREE THE WORK - DEMO VIDEO from FREE THE WORK on Vimeo.
Free the Work has been built to spotlight women, trans identifying, non-binary and underrepresented creators involved in all aspects of film making – and to make that talent un-ignorable for decision makers in marketing, movies, TV and all sorts of content creation. While the free-to-access non-profit Free the Bid database will continue to be available, Free the Work operates on a membership model. Smart algorithms feed users with suggested content based on their previous searches to help them to discover new creators – and the team has collaborated with high profile artists and creators on carefully curated playlists from the likes of Natasha Lyonne, Lena Waithe and Lucas Edges.
The desire to have a more fluid and inclusive approach to underrepresented creative talent has been with Alma from the start. With Free the Bid, supporting women was an obvious and effective place to begin, but two years later the team is more equipped (and the industry more receptive) to a more evolved understanding. Indeed, explains Alma, it wasn’t until she started directing commercials and bumped up against systematic barriers that she even felt the need to identify as a ‘woman director’.
“I felt at the time that I identified as a woman almost as a political act. It was clear to me entering into the industry,” she says. Her successes paradoxically revealed just how the system was stacked against her. She won a Stella Artois job only to realise she was the first woman to direct for the brand. She was nominated for a Director’s Guild of America Award in the commercials category. “It’s a really incredible thing when every victory you had makes you realise that you never really had a chance.”
Ultimately the platform takes the time and legwork out of the search for diverse voices, by seeking inspiration from the suggestion mechanisms of platforms like Spotify and Amazon – which means that brands, agencies and studios have no excuse.
“It’s a matter of priority. What I’m trying to do with this tool is make it easier for people that don’t think it’s their priority,” she says. “I’m curious this year to see if it really does help. I think with the right tools a lot of people will understand that they’re missing out on, literally, a renaissance of creativity.”
The platform will also allow businesses to track their efforts to diversify their roster of collaborators and do so in real time. That means that assessing progress isn’t just a one-off annual event.
One challenge Free the Work hopes to address is the relatively slow pace of change in the entertainment world. In adland, brands have been able to drive change by insisting that their agencies make more of an effort to diversify teams and collaborators. However, the different power structures in film and TV mean that there are fewer obvious levers to pull – and there are more excuses to hide behind. Even today, the excuse that projects led by non-traditional talent is harder to finance lingers, despite the record-breaking successes of work by women and people of colour. Netflix, for example, has had enormous success by connecting with a broader range of voices – Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is one of the platform’s most viewed shows ever and the Susanne Bier-directed horror Bird Box was watched by over 45 million accounts in just seven days.
Amazon Studios has jumped at Free the Work. Having acquired Alma’s latest feature Honey Boy, starring Shia LaBeouf, the streaming service will also start deploying the platform internally.
In adland, Free the Bid has made incredible strides. Over 50 top brands and agencies have pledged their support, committing to include at least one female director in every commercial pitch. As a result, agencies like BBDO and CP+B have seen a 400% increase in jobs directed by women. 72andSunny has raced from a standing start, going from working with no female directors to having 35% of their commercials directed by women. The database has also evolved to include other production talent, like editors, cinematographers and colourists. And brands like P&G and HP have been instrumental in championing the initiative.
What that illustrates is while those already eager to be more inclusive are seeing the benefit, there is still a lot of reluctance outwith the converted. Alma soon realised that in order to really open up substantial opportunities for talent, she needed reach beyond those already on board with the diversity agenda.
“My dream was to have talent discovery treated with the same urgency and have it integrated into the lives of people outside of the circles that have diversity as their top priority,” she explains. “I don’t believe there will be any change if we keep only counting on our own echo chamber.”
With that in mind, a lot of effort has gone into making Free the Work feel effortless. And delightful. Yes, it will help agencies and movie studios find a richer array of talent, but on a personal level it will also help people find creative stuff that really resonates but that they might never otherwise come across. Members will be able to save and share their own playlists too.
Over the next few weeks Alma and her collaborators will be working hard to drive interest and signups from creators and businesses – but Alma’s already got her eye on the future. Her exhilarating adventure has brought the latent creative potential of technology into sharp focus. Therefore she’s keenly aware of the negative impact of shutting women, trans identifying, non-binary and underrepresented creators out of this world-shaping force.
The launch film is, in itself, a case study of the network’s power. It’s shot by Amber Grace Johnson, a 27-year-old who has been directing for just two years. Devised by Wieden+Kennedy and produced by Object & Animal, it romps through 200 years of history and encourages viewers to open their eyes. And while Free the Work is already collaborating with giants like Amazon Studios, what’s really exciting is the potential for emerging talent to connect with each other, build teams and find a posse. Who knows what will bloom from the grassroots level?